Interviewing people who actually knew Ronald Tammen is a truly mind-blowing experience for a Tammen-obsessed person such as myself. These are folks who are harboring stories that have never made their way into news articles. Granted, it can take some pulling, because the details are few and far between. But even seemingly inconsequential comments that offer zero information about the question at hand—What do you think happened to Ron Tammen?—will provide a glimpse into a given moment in time, sometimes sweet, sometimes sorrowful, when Tammen was still walking among us.
Stories like: How Ron and his brothers Richard and John used to ride the bus to church on Sundays. How a neighbor’s dog had run across the street to greet Ron as he was delivering newspapers one day and, tragically, was hit by a car. How in high school Ron and John had made up hand signals to let one another know if their mother was in the school building because of some trouble Richard had gotten himself into. How Ronald had signed a classmate’s yearbook, “To the girl with the smile in her voice.”
Even a catch phrase uttered by someone will carry me back, as if I were listening to the person who said it for the first time. For example, when Ron’s brother John once told me about his father’s instilling in him the need to “get along in society,” voicing precisely where the “quote” and “end quote” should go, I recalled that Ron had written a similar phrase on his student record. It was the type of thing that two young men who were coming of age in the early 1950s might have been counseled on by a parent, and it brought into focus some of the invisible pressures that Ron himself might have faced.
Every so often, people will offer up a memory that’s counter to what’s been reported for years in news articles. That’s when I truly get excited, because, all of a sudden, a shifting and resettling of all other surrounding details will take place, giving the story a new perspective. I’ll make lists and timelines just to keep track of the new in light of the old, and vice versa. I’ll wonder whether I might be the first person to have heard this new variation, or if the investigators of long ago had heard the same thing, but decided, for whatever reason, not to follow up.
Another important aspect to these conversations is the fact that people tend to know other people. This, to a researcher, is key to getting to the bottom of anything. Even though the person I’m interviewing might not know much about Ronald Tammen beyond what everyone else knows—that he was a wrestler, a bass player, blah blah blah—he or she will likely be able to give me one or two names of people who might know more, and those people will give me a couple more names, and so on down the line, until suddenly, I’ll find myself talking to the actual guy who put the actual fish into Tammen’s bed.
Of course, sometimes memories get a little fuzzy after so many years have passed and some remembrances that aren’t in line with what’s already been established are just plain wrong. Being able to differentiate a valid new detail from a memory that’s been eroded after years of neuronal editing can be tough. That’s when it helps to get corroboration from someone else, if possible. Or find another information source.
The first person I ever interviewed for this project was Dr. Phillip Shriver, Miami’s beloved president from 1965 to 1981. Dr. Shriver was an aficionado on the Tammen case, though he’d arrived at Miami 12 years after Tammen had disappeared. For many years, usually at Halloween, Dr. Shriver would give a talk on the Tammen mystery, which helped keep the story alive and well. Dr. Shriver was 87 when he and I spoke, and his hearing was getting a little iffy by that time, but his brain was working just fine and he was able to chat about the details of the case with little effort.
In retrospect, when I look at the questions I asked him, I cringe. They barely scratched the surface. Unfortunately, Dr. Shriver passed away in 2011, so I wasn’t able to call him back and run some of my new lines of evidence by him. But he did two things for me. First, he didn’t laugh when I told him that I was writing a book about Ronald Tammen. He was the first non-family member that I told, and that kindness on his part allowed me to actually picture myself as an author-to-be. Second, he provided the names of two more people for me to contact, which sent me off and running.
So far, I’ve spoken with more than 30 (and counting) fraternity members, Campus Owls, Fisher Hall residents, high school friends, and family members, and more than 25 others who are knowledgeable about subjects pertaining to my research. All have been invaluable to this project, and I’m grateful that they picked up the phone or met with me over coffee or lunch to discuss my favorite topic.
Sadly, so many of the individuals with whom I’ve spoken have passed away. Although I wasn’t able to solve this mystery while they were here, the information that they provided makes me hopeful that we may soon have some closure about the question of what happened to Ronald Tammen. That’s my goal, at least.